Tag Archives: American

This Time — It Would Be Different.

(Continued from January 15th, 2012.)

“I’ve decided__to let Doug__go,” Sarah told her Sid, on a typical Tuesday morning.  Her mother would have scoffed at the idea of anything typical, let alone the chronic event of Sarah’s whining on the hard couch, never to be found in her own hysterical universe.  Nonetheless, Sarah had said it; and surprised herself when, out loud, she had to insert a glottal stop between “Doug” and “go”.  She had thought it before, those two specific words in a row; but never let her mouth take them over.  Because when she practiced speaking to Doug (while in reality speaking to herself, alone in her narrow kitchen), she had never let “go” — go after “Doug”.  She didn’t know how to let “Doug go”.  So, she would continue to come back.

Did the Sid notice it:  Sarah’s surprise at the way phonemes worked, once her mouth took them over?  For a second, she imagined her face on an infant, cooing and choking on her first words.  What wonderment!  It wasn’t necessarily Sarah herself — as an infant — but perhaps her firstborn.  That was the exact problem with these only children, in the world, like Sarah:  They made for more desperate mothers, for they hadn’t yet seen themselves reflected in another human being.  But back in the day, when she had asked her mother for a sibling, “I have not time — for such a sing!” — her mother answered, every bit the tired woman this new chosen world had begun to make of her.  Eventually, Sarah would give up asking; and by the time, she herself could biologically mother a child, she had forgotten all desire to mother a child — spiritually.

Miranda, the Sid, was studying her with glossy eyes.  She must’ve just stifled a yawn, Sarah thought.  Then, she reiterated her decision, whose courage appeared to have expired back in her kitchen.  She was looking for the long overdue alliance:

“Yes.__I’m going to let Doug (stop) go.”

“Going to”.  Not “gonna”.  Sarah judged all American contractions quite bluntly, holding them away from her face with the two fingers of her dominant hand:  Violations to the language!  decapitation of words, ew!  Her own native tongue sounded too proper in her mouth, for she hadn’t practiced it much, since leaving the old world.  Her mother’s Ukrainian was always humorous, bawdy and full of life.  Sarah, on the other hand, sounded like an academic; or like the librarian that she had become, her intention to leave, eventually — forgotten.  She had stayed too long and froze.

“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. said to her on the phone.  He had a “gonna” on his voicemail greeting:  “I’m gonna call you back.”  It had been bugging Sarah for all the years that she had loved him, learning for the first time that some men do stay long enough to reveal their faults — and to teach you to adore them, still.

Still, the “gonna” would bug her until she stopped listening far enough into the outgoing message.  (And if anyone had an “outgoing” message — it would have to be J.C.!  “Peace!” his voice always announced at the end of it — a naive ultimatum to the world by someone who hadn’t experienced much unkindness.  But before Sarah could get to the “peace”, she would’ve already hung up before the “gonna”.  NOT “going to”.)

Eventually, she mentioned it.

“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. responded, from the back of his throat — the same geography from which her mother spoke, as well, in both of her tongues.  Her mother’s words had a chronic tendency to fall back, making her register chesty.  Or, hearty.  Everything about her mother — was hearty.

Sarah propelled her words forward, as her American contemporaries did:

“I’m not!  I have a Liberal Arts education and I work at the New York Public Library.”  Her self-patronizing didn’t work.  So, she thought about it, sweating the phone against her ear.  “Okay.  I’m going to try to be better about it, you’re right.”  Still:  “Going to” — not “gonna”.

But when she told the news to her Sid, while pacing her words, “What made you decide__to do that?” — the Sid responded.

Like attracts like, Sarah let the flash of a thought slip by.  Like attracts like, and she had been spending every Tuesday morning observing — and sometimes admiring — this nifty woman who hung up her words, niftily.  Sarah could never be nifty.  She was frozen, in between the two worlds of her mother’s; sorting something out because something was always off.  She was constantly relaying between wanting to belong and not knowing why the fuck should she?!  And she would narrow it down to the pace:  Things moved differently here; differently from what little she could remember of the old world.  It wasn’t so much the speed of things, but the direction — a lack of it — making each life’s trajectory chaotic.  It took longer to sort out a life; and even when one finally did, the life could easily shake off one’s grasp of its saddle, run off its course and resume flailing between others’ ambitions and desires for you, then your own delusions and ways of coping with losses and defeats.

To the Sid’s question, Sarah finally responded:  “I feel badly__for doing that__for all these years__to Doug’s wife.”  Except that, by then, she would be in her narrow kitchen, alone again, talking to herself.  She was never quick enough for an eloquent comeback, face to face with another human being.

(Her mother never seemed to have that problem.  Mother would always speak her mind, causing a brief gestation of shock in her conversations.  But then, the American participants would laugh off their discomfort, patching their sore egos with “You’re so cute!”, at her mother’s expense.

“God bless you!” Sarah’s mother would respond then, mocking the American habit for only jolly endings.)

 

Once, Sarah had tried imagining this woman — this other woman — in Doug’s life, who had been so epically hard for him to leave.  Except that Sarah had gotten it all confused, again:  She — was the other woman.  The third wheel.  She had read theories about women with low self-esteem before — women like her; women who prayed on other women’s husbands and who envied the wives of those sad men, with the eyes of a spaniel.  (What was the difference between jealousy and envy, again:  The doer of one — but the assumer of another?)  So, Sarah had tried imagining the woman she should envy:  The one who got Doug full-time — something that she should be pitied for, actually.

That night, Doug had taken her out to a pan-Asian restaurant on the Upper West Side.  Or, actually, they had just walked-in — into the house of dim lanterns and dim sum; because otherwise Doug, according to his disgruntled self-prognosis, was “gonna crash”.  (“Gonna”, not “going to”.  So much for poetry, professor!)

The shrimp stew he had ordered for Sarah arrived to her golden-and-red placemat.  The shiny shrimp tails, as pink as newborn hamsters, stuck out of the white rice, covered with milky-white slime.  She didn’t even like rice.  Her people came from the land of potatoes.  Potatoes and sorrow.  He wanted none of it.

“I can’t sleep over tonight,” Doug broke the news into his bowl of steaming miso soup.  His hunger has been staved off with cubes of tofu.  “It’s Beth’s birthday.”

Beth.  She bet Beth (insert a glottal stop in between) was patient and calm; living steadily ever after, while quietly meeting the expectations that her parents naturally harbored for their next generation.  She must’ve colored her hair every two weeks, in settle shades of red; wore flat shoes, hummed while folding Doug’s clean laundry; and she cut her nails short, as to not cause any breakage on surrounding surfaces.  And she bet (stop) Beth had a sibling.  Nifty.

“Nifty,” Sarah echoed.  Neither the slimy shrimp nor the sticky rice could balance on her wooden chopsticks.  So, she grabbed it by the tail:  “Shouldn’t you be__taking her out__then?”  She was beginning to pace her words again.  It started to feel like rage.

Doug squinted his eyes.  It wasn’t his first time, but not something that she had gotten used to yet, in their affair:  The beginnings of their mutual resentment.

“No need to get snappy,” he said, suddenly looking like he was about to cry.  It was an expected trajectory, for him:  going from a man-child who felt uncared for (what, fending for his own food, or he was “gonna crash”, while under her care?!) — to the scorned lover, exhausted by his failed expectations.  Then, why wouldn’t he just stay with Beth, who sounded smart enough and mellow; at peace and never shocked at this world’s disorder; unfazed by chaos, as children of full, healthy families tended to be?  (Nifty.)

And how ever did she, herself, end up here, wanting to take the place of the woman who deserved her pity, actually — a woman Sarah would much rather like, were she to meet her, on her own?  On their own, could they fall into a gentle admiration — love? — of each other?

“So, how old is good ole Beth__going__to be?” Sarah asked.  But her words came out shrill, and the sloppy face of the washed-up actress began inching its way down her forehead.

 

There had been other break-ups, in their history.  Most of them, she had instigated herself, practicing them ahead of time, alone in her kitchen.  But in reality, the break-ups came out clumsily, and not at all ironic.

In her heart — or rather somewhere around her diaphragm, underneath her lungs, perpetually under her breath — Sarah felt she would be punished for this.  She was already getting judged by her Sid — the woman she was paying to side with her, and then to guide her from that place of purchased empathy.

This time — it would be different.

It would be Sarah asking Doug out.  She had told him to meet her at a Starbucks, located at least two zip codes away from his and Beth’s neighborhood.  Doug would arrive first, with some latest book of poetry moderately well reviewed by critics under his armpit; and she would find him — drowning into the soft leather chair in the corner and muttering — while making ferocious notes on its pages and sipping from a Venti.  Except that this time, she wouldn’t listen to his embittered theories, always delivered in a slightly exhibitionist manner, as if pleading to be overheard:  on this poet being undeserving, or on that one — being, god forbid, better connected.  (“When is it gonna be about talent, in this industry?!”  “Going to” — NOT “gonna” — professor!)

This time, she would pass up her dose of caffeine, walk out into the wind and pace ahead, while the fat snowflakes sloppily kissed her forehead.  The five o’clock sun overlooked the island with its rouge glares.  This place had a flair for nonchalant beauty.  It never posed, but grew and changed — a once magnificent idea merely running out its course:  New York City.  This City left all acts of sad foolishness and silly coverups of aching egos to the ones that could not keep up.  (“You’re so cute!” — “God bless you!”)

And she would try to keep the break-up neat; because catching the A-train after ten at night meant freezing on the platform while watching giant rats have their supper in the oil spills of the rails.  Later on, on the phone, that would be her mother’s favorite part; and she would ask Sarah for more details:  the color of the rats’ fur in Ukrainian and the reek of the tunnel, made dormant by the cold temperatures, which she demanded for Sarah to translate into Celsius, in order for her to understand — to get the very gist of it, the very heart.  Everything about her mother — had a heart.  Perhaps, that was the secret to her overcoming chaos.

But when it came down to the heart of the matter — Sarah’s dull ache of disappointment, the failure of words, and the resigned mindset of someone frozen in loss — her mother became quiet.  And the phone continued sweating against Sarah’s tired ear, surely causing her something, later on, in life.

Better Safe Than Sorrier

But maybe, after all, justice was meant to sound like silence:  Not a marathon of mauled over words she had previously thought were required for forgiveness, which, in the end, left her exhausted; her throat — dehydrated.  Sarah despised feeling like that.  Shouldn’t forgiveness be a higher ground, an emotion that belonged to the Magnanimous and the Wise?  the, god bless them, Non-Mundane?  Instead, she watched herself become a woman with a sloppy face, like a washed-up actress on the screen of a decade-long soap opera; and she paced her apartment, with the cell phone sweating against her ear (surely causing her cancer later in life!); and she worked laboriously — on forgiveness:  Holding up each word in front of her torso, measuring it at the shoulder seams.  Are the sleeves too long?  Does it make her look fat?  Is there anything — left to be done?

And neither did this newly discovered sound of justice resemble the forced catharsis she chased in sessions with her shrink.  Where had she learned to expect these miraculous results?  Must’ve been on another TV show, somewhat better written for a channel on which the actors were allowed to swear; and they could cry unattractively, while spraying spit and snot.  (Later on, in interviews, these same actors would call the scenes “career defining”, while Sarah found them merely mocking humanity.  Maybe, the problem was she was easily bored.  Or, maybe, she understood too much.)

Sarah’s shrink was a poised woman who wore clothes from the manikins of Gap and Banana Republic — clothes that on Sarah always sat awkwardly and sadly, and made her apologize, for something, as she returned the silly plastic hangers to the changing-room girls:  “Sorry…”; the poised woman who appeared immune from being shocked by the atrocities Sarah’s mother had interfiled into her life, like thin jackets of DVD’s with splatter horrors,  hidden in a heart surgeon’s movie collection.

Nifty!  

The word one would never use in Sarah’s own obituary was made for the lives of women like her PsyD.  (Was the “p” silent, in that?  She’d assumed that, but was embarrassed to ask.  So, she began writing “Date with Sid” in her calendar, every Tuesday, even though the shrink’s name was Miranda.  Miranda Bloom comma Sid.)  Her Sid’s world — was nifty.  Nifty piles of magazines in a fan formation of a peacock’s tail.  Nifty little plastic plants, never wilting, lining the dust-less bookshelves with thick or thin books, always dense, whose reading made Sarah feel sleepy.  Or apologetic.  Even the clean-lined IKEA furniture — with unforgiving, hard surfaces and un-homey fabric patterns never to be found in her mother’s hysterical universe of tchotchkes — was nifty.

Sarah, unlike her Sid, could never be nifty.  She tried, coming back for another round of awkward mirror reflections in dressing rooms of Banana Republic.  But somehow, it just wouldn’t fit.  Any of it.  The store’s white lighting buzzed above and revealed Sarah’s old pockmarks from her 5th grade measles that her mother had decided to treat with holy water and sage.  Embarrassed, Sarah would place the nifty cloths over a pile of colorful and bejeweled women’s underwear while avoiding the bored and slightly inquisitive stares of the salesgirls (“Sorry…”); and she’d swear to never come back.

But she would.  After seeing another nifty woman laughing into the pinstriped bicep of a handsome man, on West End Avenue, she would attempt to shop for that life again, as if she hadn’t learned the lesson.  The same way she hadn’t learned the lesson with Doug — a tenured professor of poetry on an epic journey of trying to leave his wife.  She continued to come back to him.  Maybe this time.  They would carry on, until neither could recall whose turn it was to leave; who was doing the staying, the grasping, the scorning; and who would be in charge of forgiving.

“What do you want, ideally, from your life with Doug?” the shrink, looking particularly nifty, paced her words as Sarah thumbed the thinning threads of her sweater sleeves.  She often wore her clothes to tatters, until the freckles of rolled lint began crowding her armpits and crotch; and she would be, again, embarrassed.

“Sorry?”

She didn’t expect the question.  Between the two of them, Doug was the one with the plan.  She — was the woman with none.  She had met him at the library where she’d interned one summer, having purchased herself a Liberal Arts education that should’ve guaranteed her a teaching career, had Sarah really wanted one.  Except that she didn’t.  Hadn’t.  She hadn’t thought it through, while in college; and she landed in the library; landed with an intention to leave, eventually — like those grayish-white swans that landed in her Ukrainian birth village one autumn; but miscalculated, stayed too long and froze during the first drop of the temperatures.

She had been following her fragmented thoughts about her Sid’s sexuality, when the question got hung in the air, each word — an ornament of paper-thin glass:

“What do you__want?__Ideally.__From your life__with Doug?”

“I wonder if she dates women?” Sarah had been thinking, while thumbing her sweater, about the Sid, based on the mere fact that the woman wore primarily flat shoes.  Sarah stopped, having been caught red-handed.  Red-thumbed.

She, of course, would never say this out loud.  She — “of course!” — was much worldlier than that!  But Sarah was also an immigrant’s daughter, not born in this country.  (Which, to most, had made her worldly enough, but never exotic.  “Exotic” belonged to girls from the countries that Americans favored for tourism: the tan and taut creatures from escapist lifestyles, and from the irresponsible summer flings of middle-aged men, bored in their marriages.)  The dull shards of her mother’s old-fashioned prejudice still appeared in situations of ultra-Westernized pathos.  Like this one:  Sarah, on a very hard couch (surely earning herself cancer, later in life!); complaining, coming down hard, then taking cover from her shame in a numb silence of a spoiled brat; then, seeking refuge in a blunt stereotype with which her mother broke down the world.

No matter how hard she tried — to wring her hands, like that actress with the sloppy face — her shrink appeared unimpressed.  Some of Sarah’s college classmates had spoken of how easily they gained alliances with their Sids.  She, however, seemed incompetent at manipulation.  Sarah was smart but not that smart.  (Pretty, but not “exotic”.)  And she wondered if her shrink was now judging her for the extramarital affair with Doug.  (It was “extramarital” for Doug, not for Sarah.  Sarah was just an outside participant, far from being an outside force.  A third wheel, along for the ride, however crippled.  “The woman with none.”)

Could it be the case that her shrink was now appalled and no longer impartial?  Anything you say__or do__can__and will be__held against you?

Sarah never got the warning — from Miranda, the Sid.

Most of her teenage years, she had spend sorting out the world.  The one of her mother’s — which she was obliged to automatically respect — confused her with its invasive familiarity; and she found herself pretending to not understand the cashiers at the Ukrainian deli, who attempted to speak to her in Russian.  Somehow, they all knew her, even though their faces appeared no more familiar than the color-enhanced photographs of the folk dancers in the Times Travel Section, on Kiev.  But they knew her:  her name, her marital status (or the lack of one) and occupation.  Or, they knew her mother.  But did that at all justify their asking for her phone number so that they could fix her up “with a nice Russian boy” (which most of the time meant some young alcoholic heir of a local mechanic, who wore rhinestoned jeans and spent his inheritance on bottle services all over town)?

The new world — again, chosen by her mother who left the old country with five-year-old Sarah, in the name of a better life — that world seemed to be fast-talking and brash, filled with people who suffered from fashionable dis-eases, like “depression” and “ADD”; inflamed “sciaticas” and bored souls.  The new world seemed allergic to sentiment.  Even sex wasn’t safe here; and after her first “mature” (as her mother called it) experience, Sarah began to notice that sex came with shame.  The smarter girls (often “exotic”) used it to negotiate free deals.  Free meals.  The dependent ones confused it for love, always making, forcing something out of it.  And Sarah pitied the men who had been trained to get it, but not know what to do with it, afterward.  So, it would sit — a pulsating blur in one’s living-room, underneath the soft light, waiting for the lovers to go through with it.

“You, Amerikan vemen,” her mother would say, in her reckless English, whenever she lectured the American womanhood in her daughter.  “You dan’t know vat you vant.”

On her ride home on the A-train, Sarah had made a hobby out of watching the two cultures collide on the faces of Russian teenagers heading to Coney Island, late in the evening.  She could always pick them out of a crowd:  Their Western fashion looked slightly misfitted (far from nifty, and somehow wrong:  “Sorry…”).  And the words — “Whack!”, “Sick!”, “Fo’ sho’!” — came out unaccented phonetically, but their cadence was off.  Something was off, always, in the immigrant world; but because she couldn’t name it, perfectly, precisely, to her American contemporaries, Sarah often found herself misunderstood.  And silent.

“What’s your beef with yo’ mama, anyway, man?”  J.C. always called her “man”.  He was an artist living in Brooklyn Heights, and yes, they had tried sleeping together once.  J.C. stopped it from happening though, when Sarah’s toes got tangled up in his socks while she tried to pull them off with her feet.  (There were many ways to make sex feel pathetic.  But a naked lover in white tube-socks — was the surest.)

“I wanna respect you, man…” he said looking down at Sarah from a propped-up pillow while she paved a trail of dry kisses in between his breasts and wondered about a sexier way to get rid of a curly hair, stuck in the back of her tongue.  There was no such a way.  So, she hooked her index finger, jammed it inside her mouth and began fishing for it.

By then, J.C. was already spewing out his theories on sexual politics.  Sarah nearly gagged.  He was first generation American born, from South America (so, did that even count?).  She had assumed, at the time, that J.C. knew something she didn’t; so, she stopped.  In those moments, it would’ve been less awkward — or less sad — to be one of those outspoken, brave American girls, with wild hair, layers of hippie jewelry and bright red lipstick, who had ready ideas on sexual liberation of women and mysterious comebacks via the ironic lyrics of Dylan or Ginsberg.  Sarah was smart, but not that smart.  Not nifty.  Not “exotic”.

That night, she took the subway home, fishing for the curly hair in the back of her throat, in an empty train car.  What was the big deal, she wondered.  And why was it that men could so easily justify speaking on behalf of her conscience, her desires?

Doug had done it to her, for years:  choosing for her from the menus of fancy restaurants.  Over the years, their eateries would change, going from the dimly lit expensive places to the crowded diners with hairy waiters who emerged from the kitchen with stained pots of coffee.  Doug had been on an epic journey to leave his wife.  But maybe, Sarah just wasn’t enough of a reason.

Sorry…

Sarah leaned her forehead against the cold glass of the sliding doors and cried, quietly, finger hooking at the back of her throat.

(To Be Continued.)

“All the Miles That Separate — Disappear Now, When I’m Dreaming of Your Face.”

It’s going to be about opening doors.

It started with our landing in Warsaw…

No, wait.  Scratch that!

It started with our boarding of the trans-Atlantic flight — that carried us to Vienna — and which I nearly missed due to a row of fuck-ups on behalf the domestic airline that took me to D.C.  One thing that I must say (in the domestic airline’s defense) is that the stewart who announced our landing did make a Christmas wish over the radio:  He asked that every soul on that plane allowed those of us, in danger of missing our flights, pass through the doors first.

“Yeah, right!” I thought.  “Like that’s gonna happen!”

My point exactly:  A family of South Koreans flying in first class were the first to get out of their seats and block our way.  And then, a miracle!  They sat.  Back.  Down.  And the entire plane remained seated, and we were given a priority.

Well, I’ll be damned:  Humanity!

I started running, checked the schedule of international departures on the go and followed the arrows to my gate.

“Say what?!  I have to catch a train?!  Fuck me!”

With ten minutes before the plane’s departure, I was still running alongside the moving walkway — and I was actually faster than the mellow well-dressed passengers, much better suited for this spotless place.

“Wien?” a flight attendant with a German accent intercepted me.

“YES!  WHERE?!” I was short of breath and seemingly out of my good manners.

“This way.  We have been waiting for you, m’am.”

Well, I’ll be damned:  What dignity!

A couple of other flight attendants who checked my boarding pass were equally as chill.  Effortlessly, I passed through a pair of sliding doors and entered possibly the biggest aircraft I’ve ever seen.  It was so giant that upon our landing (forgive the shortcut past the 9-hour flight here), TWO sets of exits opened to let us out.  And it was one of those aircrafts that involved stairs leading down to the foreign soil; and then, THREE shuttles — waiting to deliver us to the Passport Check Point.  So old-school!

After the silent man who stamped my visa page, there would be another security check, more doorless doorways and then another boarding, in the same old-school manner.  This time, it would involve ONE shuttle and ONE set of doors.

“Dzien dobry!” the flight attendants cooed at me at the entrance of a seemingly brand new plane.  They all had those gorgeous Polish noses, mellow faces and striking eyes.

Is this a European thing?  By now, I began to wonder.  This dignity, this slower manner that allowed for a well thought-out response:  Was this what other travelers insisted I experienced — by going to Europe?

And it would indeed turn out to be the pattern in this city:  In Warsaw’s every neighborhood, I would be treated with respect albeit some barely noticeable curiosity.  The women here — always so gorgeous, I would gladly subscribe to the world’s conviction that there were no equals to them, anywhere! — would look at me with some off-kilter fascination.  They wouldn’t be unkind at all, but they seemed to know I was one odd bird:  Sort of from around here — but not really.  Someone who understood them but, except for my communication via gentle manners I’d acquired with forgiveness, could barely respond.

Some men would be attracted but never spoke to me.  Most studied me modestly and never interfered.  One young and pretty creature stood aside, dumbfounded, and let me pass him.  A few turned heads — but never spoke up.  And no man would ever disrespect the woman he was with by being demonstrative with his curiosity at me.

Well, I’ll be damned:  Respect!

The doors to my cabdriver’s car (he looked so very much like my father):  Those doors just wouldn’t open.  And I had tried a couple of them.  My father’s kind lookalike, despite being in the midst of shuffling my bags, ran to assist me.  He would attempt to open those doors upon my final stop, as well; but I was too American in my capabilities to wait for him.

The doors leading to the concierge office were impossible to locate.  And only after going down a dodgy alley, with multicolored graffiti and smoking teenagers, did I finally locate the back door.  (The only woman in that group — gorgeous and not easily impressed — squinted her eyes at me.)

I yanked the door.  No luck.  Embarrassed to look back at the hip smokers, by now struck with silence, I buzzed the first key on the intercom.  Thankfully, someone chirped on the other end, and I was allowed to ascend.

The doors to our rented apartment required TWO sets of alarms and THREE sets of keys.  I waved and wiggled the keychain with my electronic pass in front of the red-lit eye for nearly five minutes before an older woman — again, gorgeous, mellow and smiling — quietly demonstrated how to do it.  The old fashioned key, like something out of my childhood’s fairytale, required some maneuvering in the lock.  Finally, I entered the spartan place that would become my home, for this week.

And this story about my random visit of Poland — where, after sixteen years, I would reunite with dad — would continue to be about doors:  The tubular, time-machine like doors of the shower; the heavy doors of every restaurant whose signs I could not decipher; the detailed doors of cozy cafes that would support my jet lag with their coffee; the wooden doors along the narrow cobble streets behind which I secretly wished to live (so that I could be closer — to dad); and the eventual folding doors of that ONE bus meant to bring my old man here —

TOMORROW!

I swear:  I’d conquer so many more doors — and miles — to get to you, today!

Lost in Translation

It was like Kafka.

“World According to Russia,” she said to me over the phone. “Hello!”

“Um.  Hello?”

I was slightly taken back that someone in a Russian office would pick up after the first ring.

“Yes, hello,” she repeated.  “World According to Russia.  How can I help you?”

“Yes, um.  Hello… I mean:  Allo!” and that’s when I switched back to my native tongue, and I don’t know why.  “Zdravstvui’te!”

I was respectful but immediately nervous.  Whenever speaking to any Russian bureaucrat, I tend to lose a grasp on my otherwise unwavering — to some, obnoxious — self-esteem.

It makes no sense to English speakers, but there are several types of Russian.

“Well, it is like dialects?” an American would ask me.

No.  I’d rather think of it as this:  That the entire history of my dear tortured Motha’land had made a mark onto my native tongue of poetic beauty — by splitting it into as many personalities as there were regimes.

First, there is the pretty Russian, used mostly in literature:  I’m pretty good at that one, and I dig the way it translates.  Then, there is the Soviet street talk:  A blend of Yiddish and something crass and always funny, it is the most expressive of them all.

Motha speaks in that one well, and normally our chats result in my dashing for the bathroom, at the end.

“Who needz fuckingg Pilates, eh — vhen ve laugh and laugh like zis?!”  She would sometimes say that from behind my bathroom door, while I would clutch my bladder and beg her to “PLEASE!  STOP!”

She is right though:  My motha’s stand-up routine is the best form of ab workout I have ever known.  But I do not speak her language:  I only marvel at the way it turns its words from inside out, and it makes for such comedy, as a result.

The street talk of the contemporary Russians is something I’ve only briefly overheard on the lips of those hotheaded Muscovites, all clad in black leather jackets and American labels, whenever I catch them being interviewed by BBC.  Most of the time though, they tend to switch to English anyway, which then comes out eloquently and with a very little accent.  The tall female beauties speak in that tongue as well.  They are, however, most often accompanied by older men of stoic nature who speak on their behalf.  And when they speak to women, the men tend to address them slightly condescendingly, or like little girls.

The third personality of Russian — is the one I fear the most.  It is the one adopted by the Russian Consulates, bilingual politicians or lawyers in West Hollywood.  It’s not just legal lingo though.  Again:  It’s NOT a dialect!

This type of Russian is choppy, filled with acronyms and abbreviations that I have no skills for breaking down.  Instead, I panic, ask them to slow down; then, reiterate their statements again and again.  Considering that most bureaucrats are at a lack for time, such interactions don’t end well for me.  The people who should have the answers leave me to my own devices, while they, nearly irate, roll their eyes at my degree of helplessness and walk out on me — or hang up.

The woman on the phone had switched to Russian, too.  I have to give it to her:  She sounded quite pleasant, so far.  Not really perky, no; but pleasant nonetheless.  I guess she never knew who could be calling her.  It could be an American, and an American always expects a certain standard of customer service (the concept of which doesn’t even exist in my native tongue, no matter its personality).

“How can I help you, young woman?” she said to me, sounding almost aristocratic.

I relaxed a bit:  “Um.  Well.  I wanted to know about traveling to Russia with an American passport.”

There was a pause.  She didn’t budge.

“Would one need a visa?” I gave her a little more.

“But of course!”

Aha!  The way she said it almost sounded irate.  Was that a dumb question?  Or did I expect her to be rude?  I tried to sooth the situation.

“Um.  Okay.  Well.  How would one… go about…  THAT?  Da?”

“You would have to bring documentation that proves you’re no longer a Russian citizen.”

“Um.  Okay.  But isn’t having an American passport enough of a proof?”

“Young woman,” her voice got slightly terser.  “Do you know how many Russians live here with both passports?”

I didn’t know.

“Is that like dual citizenship?”  I jumped:  Look at me, being smart ‘n’ all!  But I did have to switch to English to deliver that.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the woman answered, also in English.

At any moment now, she would hang up on me, I thought.  She owed me nothing.  She was doing this for free.

“Um.  Okay.  What do I do to prove that I am an American and NOT a Russian citizen.”

“You would have to show us papers renouncing your Russian citizenship.”

“Renouncing?!”  That sounded harsh.  Nyet?!

But the answer was simply:  “Da.”

“Um.  Okay.  How do I do that?”

“You have to bring your Russian passport…”

“Well.  Yes, you see:  I do not have one.”

“Then, you must apply!”

The woman proceeded to breakdown timelines and fees.  I panicked and asked her to slow down.  The gist was this:  It would take half a grand to get the passport that I would then have to renounce.  In terms of time, I was looking at pretty much a year.

“Um.  What if I don’t renounce it?” I said.  (If I can help it, I’d rather never renounce anything in life.)

“Then, you still pay and wait to get the passport.”

There was more silence.  I wanted to reiterate, but the absurdity was pretty clear already.  There would be paperwork and fees, then a long wait.  And then, another stage of paperwork, and fees, and more long wait.  But at least, it sounded Russian!

The silence lasted.  The woman almost gave in:

“Unless you were born here…”  She was giving me an inch… a centimeter.

“No,” I said.  I wasn’t sure which language I was using at that point.

I think the woman sensed the shock, because she took some mercy on me:

“When did you come here, miss?”

“Um.  Sixteen years ago.”

“WHAT YEAR?” and just like that, she was about to get irate, again.

“Nineteen… Oh, I dunno.  1997, I think?”

“Ah, yes.  You’re one of those,” the woman said.  “You have no choice.”

“Not Bad, Huh? For Some Immigrants?”

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.” —

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

A girl with an unused-up face was working at the counter of Rite-Aid.  She seemed to be in training, still; wearing that horrid polyester polo shirt made in China.  It was too large on her, too loose; un-pretty, untucked — and without a name tag.

“You’re fine for today,” her manager must’ve told her in the morning, when he completed her “uniform check”.  “But after the training is over, you must remember to wear it, everyday.”

The fucking name tag!  That’s the rule.  There are always rules, in jobs like this.

I often squint at those tiny plaques that sadly dangle by their pins on chests of any customer service personnel.  I try to decipher them, figuring out the pronunciation; and I try to guess the origin.  Sometimes, the names are easy:  Maria, Sally, Mark, AJ.  The names longer than three syllables are always harder — but they make for a perfect conversation piece.  But in cases like that, the name bearer — the name tag wearer — is often sick of being asked about it.

There was this one time, though, a Nigerian man began to tell me his.  All I could hear were endless consonants and glottal stops.  He assumed I was an American. He was getting a kick out of it, making a scene.  Immediately, I felt ignorant and humiliated.  Because I thought I had at least some clue — more clue than most — about what it had to take for him to get here.

So often I stand at a counter — or behind a plastic window — and I desperately calculate the timing of thanking these people by their names; as if that would make the insignificant exchange of ours more meaningful.  No.  I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.

And I am sure they still go home in the evenings, complaining about their managers, who nag them about silly things like schedules, lunch breaks “by law” — and those fucking name tags.

“Why can’t he just leave me alone?!” they ask the rhetorical question of their equally exhausted spouses, at dinner, their words belonging to forsaken prayers.  They get drowned out by the hyped-up realities happening on the television screen.  And in the morning, they’ve gotta do the whole thing all over again.  And if they aren’t running late, they’ve gotta remember:  to grab the fucking name tag.

Still, I prefer to say these names out loud.  No, I don’t expect to please.  And I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.  I just want a little bit more humanity, in places like this.  In jobs like this.

There was already plenty of sadness in the fluorescent lights buzzing above the unused-up face of the girl working at the counter of Rite-Aid.

“Why must they be running these things right now?” I thought, noticing that despite the blazing sun outside, the rows of lights remained lit.  Lit and buzzing.

And yet underneath their cold rays whose pulse can send an epileptic into an episode, this girl appeared very pretty.  She had long spiral curls on each side of her brown face.  And because she wore not a hint of make-up, I quickly imagined her on some simple, yet still exotic shore, drinking milk out of a coconut cracked open with a machete.

I wondered if she was a student of some sort, at a community college, working this job “just until…”  Or if she was a daughter of an immigrant, meant to be grateful by that very definition — for the privilege of her minimum wage and health benefits.  And if she goes home, exhausted and confused:

What exactly is the meaning of this daily drudgery?  And when, exactly, does it end? 

And then, there was her face.  It was unused-up.  It had no traces of bitterness, no histories of lovers’ betrayal or disappointment.  Other humans hadn’t gotten to her yet.  And she smiled a little while holding a pack of cigarettes, immediately humiliated, waiting for her trainer to find the time to explain the exact procedure of selling those things.  She waited, while her customer — a strange, muttering woman — scoffed and squinted her eyes at the name tag of the manager standing nearby.  Watching.  Why must we get off — on other people’s humiliation?

It would take a few beats for the girl to settle down.  The scoffing customer would storm out, muttering about her own miseries.  The trainer would return to his routine, indifferently.  The manager could be traced by the jingle of his keys, as he walked away into his hideout, behind the swinging door.  (At least, he had a space of his own.)  But the girl would have to regroup, in front of us, and wait for the awkwardness of the moment to pass.

“I think she’s open,” an old man behind me was breathing down my neck.

Yet, I insisted on holding my spot until I was called over.  The girl with an unused-up face deserved her dignity.

And dignity — takes time. And space.

“I can help the next customer in line,” she said.  Her voice was light, resonant.  It better belonged in a choir of St. Patrick Cathedral.

I walked over:

“Hello, love.”

She wasn’t wearing a name tag, you see:  that fucking name tag I used to have to wear myself, at my very first jobs as an immigrant in America.  But I refused to treat her good, yet unused-up face as nameless.

So, she would be Love — the bearer of my motha’s name — at least for a few seconds that day, at Rite-Aid.  She deserved a name; and if not love — she deserved some dignity.

And dignity — takes compassion.

And space.

Home, Bitter-Sweet Home

Today, I woke up to the sound of construction.  Having had the type of a day that nearly disparaged me with other people’s tests of my boundaries, being brought back to reality didn’t enthrall me much, as you can imagine.  I growled, tossed to the other side of my bed; yanked the alarm plug out of the wall (‘cause I don’t need that shit waking me up later); and on my feet that someone had to have pumped with lead while I was sleeping, I stumbled toward my bedroom window:

“Bloody F!” I shifted the blinds to examine the haps of my ‘hood.

A handful of short, brown men calling out to each other in a foreign language were repairing the roof of the little blue house next to mine.  Right underneath my top-story apartment, I could see them ripping that shit to pieces.  Unlike the men at one of those construction sites with heavy machinery and brutal metallic noises, these guys were tiny; and the sounds they emitted belonged to the old country:  a scraping of the shovel against the stripped wood, an arhythmic knocking of a hand-held hammer and the rainfall of nails hailing into a plastic bucket in the middle.  The shortest of the workers, wearing a safari hat, had been assigned the task of sweeping around with a giant broom with plastic bristles. That thing was thrice as tall!  And their leader — a gray-mustached man with an LAPD cap and a waterproof pouch with architectural drawings sticking out of it — looked out toward my building while smoking a pipe.

That fucking pipe rang a bell:  On my yesterday’s morning jog, while fumbling with the wires of my iPod, I nearly knocked him over.  He didn’t see me coming from behind, didn’t hear my mutters at the wires that would’ve annoyed me less had they belonged to a spider web into which I walked in, face first.

“Ooh…  Sorry…” I said, not really meaning it:  Who the fuck was he anyway and why wasn’t he paying attention?  I began to make my way around him.

“‘S okay, beauty,” the gray-mustached man calmly said after removing his smoking instrument from the thin lips that made him look like my father, “You can bump me anytime.”

Okay, may be NOT like my father, you naughty old player!  I laughed.  I do tend to forget that older folk still haven’t forgotten about sex, and that some of them may still be having it (yikes!).

So, it always tickles me to no end to watch these old guys flirt with me, with the swagger of their old days.  I bet they don’t sext the woman they like; and they know the etiquette of a phone call.  “Liking” a girl’s photograph on Facebook does not pass, for them, as an expression of desire.  And their stubborn commitment to getting doors and pulling out chairs; to taking over a woman’s grocery bags and never letting her whip out her money, no matter her protesting — all that throws me into a state of easy melancholy, readily available to my Russianness.

Yesterday, we left it at a laugh; but as I took off, I continued to smile and shake my head a few more times.  My jogging step suddenly got lighter.  I maneuvered my way around my neighborhood at the foot of a mountain; and considering LA-LA’s latest weather of the Bay-like blues — with its fogginess and unpredictable spurts of sunshine — it suddenly reminded me of my home:  A tiny village on a peninsula at the other end of the Pacific.  The old country.

A fresh cup of coffee would make the perfect finish to my start of the day, I decided, and detoured toward my neighborhood’s market.  Feeling the grogginess of the morning lift, giving room to the lightness of gratitude, I aimlessly walked through the fresh produce aisle.  A mount of magnificent red plums tempted me to pick-up a few and breathe them in.  I rubbed my fingers against a mint leaf and petted the shiny surfaces of eggplants; groped a few avocados.  Letting habit and the vague smell of coffee take me to my destination, I passed the fish counter.

“Hello, how are jew?” the manager said from behind his tempting, never frozen line-up of produce.

“Beauticious,” I answered and gave him my best American smile:  open and down with it.

Surprised by an alert response, the man’s brown face immediately stretched into an enthusiastic smile:  “Beauti-cious?”  I heard remnants of his Spanish accent.

“It’s like, ahem, beautiful and delicious at the same time,” I explained.  “Like those jumbo scallops of yours.”

“Oy!  Oy!” the man was already putting on his gloves.  “Would jew like to take a l’ook?”  (Definitely Spanish!)

Before I could switch from smiling to speaking (I’m still figuring out the dynamics of that whole American smiling, to tell you the truth), the old guy was already on my side of the counter, lifting its front cover.  (I didn’t even know it was built like that!)  A whiff of the sea hit my nose:  Ah, the old country.  HOME.  

The man began to gingerly pick-up the beauticious scallops and bounce them in his giant hands.

“Oy!  How ‘bout dis one?!”

“Gorgeous,” I said and rested my forearm on his shoulder.  “Beauticious!”

He chuckled:  My tender presence thrilled him. Perhaps, it reminded him of his own home:  Where men drink beer on outside patios and bluntly whistle at the lovely chicas strutting by; where time crawls and dictates the course of the day with its mood; where lunchtime can last until dinner and where every accidental drum beat can start an impromptu fiesta.

“What cha got there?”  The old guy said to me and starting staring at my breast.

I looked down:  A neon-orange sticker that used to belong to the mount of avocados, sat in the vicinity of my nipple and read:

“RIPE READY TO EAT”.

The man sized me up:  Was he about to get in trouble?  But when I thumped my forehead against his chest and lost my composure entirely, wiping away the tears that ready flooded my tired eyes, he too began to holler with his chesty laughter.

“Oy!  Oy!” he was still holding those scallops in this giant, brown hands and throwing his head back.  He would’ve touched me — it felt like he wanted to — but his American training had taught him about boundaries.

Still:  It was suddenly all so easy; so light.  Beauticious and grateful.

“Yep,” I thought:

It’s time to go home.  The old country.

On Dem Cool Cats — and Kittens

In the entirety of my life in which I began considering myself an adult — a grown woman, with realized desires and choices to pursue those desires — I proudly admit to being a student of humanity.  It must be why, I think, my sex life has been so adventurous and, for the lack of a better word, democratic.  No, I haven’t tried everything, my curious comrades, but I have tried plenty; and as for the nationalities of my lovers — well, my vagina is like the United Nations symposium.

But besides my studious pursuits in the bedroom, I’ve investigated both genders by delving into Esquire Magazine, for at least a decade.  First of, it worships women.  (Yes, please!)  Then, it deconstructs men while lovingly teasing them for their unmanly behaviors.  (Mmm-hmm.  I always love me some of that!)  As for the staff writers at this nearly a century-old mag — some of them are geniuses, fo’ sho’!  So, say, if for whatever lucky circumstance, my choices one night would be between the penises of Johnny Depp and Tom Chiarella — I’d rather end up moaning Tom’s name between the sheet.

Over a decade ago (Jesus, I am old!  Jesus’s age, to be precise!), my fav mag had a piece on the Advancement Theory:

http://www.esquire.com/features/music/ESQ0704-JULY_AMERICA.

As far as theories go, it is so new, it may as well be considered an embryo.  However, what makes it so brilliant — or may I dare say, “advanced” — is that, in a typically ballsy, unpredictable American way, it was thought up by two buds (Jason Hartley and Britt Bergman) shooting the shit at a Pizza Hut somewhere in South Carolina.  Love it!  ‘Cause you see, my lovelies, my shit-shooting brilliant comrades have invented a gazillion of theories at my hood’s famed spot, The Birds; but I don’t think we are even a millimeter “advanced” enough to change this nation’s academic curricula with our pontifications.

So, what about this Advancement Theory?  It particularly delves into music and the artists who birth it into being.  From what I understand with my intelligent but far from “advanced” pia mater, is that musicians break into two categories:  they are either “advanced” or not at all; and what makes them advanced — is their utter unpredictability. In other words, neither do their cater to their audiences’ expectation, nor do they devote their egos to going against them.  They do whatever comes to their non-convoluted, genius minds; and for that very reason, they are often misunderstood.  Of course, it is a tale as old as humanity itself, but sooner or later — and often, postmortem — a true genius gets the recognition he or she deserves.  But at the very moment of their art’s creation and birth, they leave us scratching our un-“advanced” domes.

Examples?  Liz Phair and (Lord, help me!) Sting can apparently do this “advanced” shit in their sleep.  M.I.A. and Gnarls Barkley?  Definitely cool but not even getting warmer.  Bob Dylan?  Apparently, Bob is still tinkering with his “advancement”…  Oh, I know, I know:  How dare I fuck with Dylan?!  But according to my Bible Esquire — “If something is done ironically, it cannot be advanced”; and ain’t Dylan the god of irony?  this country’s musical Charles Baudelaire himself?  But he did earn himself some extra points by struttin’ around Venice with Adriana Lima.

Lou Reed:  Invented this shit!  (“Shaved her legs and then he was a she”?!  “And the colored girls say, ‘Doo do doo, doo do doo’”?  Honey:  Pah-leeze!)  The Biebs and the Britney:  Will never get there.  Kanyeezy:  C’mon, baby!  I’m rootin’ for ya’!  Tom Waits:  The Advancement Theory’s personal Jesus, especially post his collaboration with Miss Scarlett Johansson (who, by the way, after recently shagging Sean Penn has shot through the roof of V’s personal meter of brilliancy).

So, why this spiel?  And why this morning?  Well, comrades, in my lifetime, I may not enter into the category of a literary genius; but I can certainly aspire to it.  But the one thing I do NOT intend to do in my art — even though I have regretfully committed it in my life — is to allow for my despair to be liked or for my bloody fear to determine my choices. I am looking to grow, to expand — to explode! — to serve my personal calling while worshiping the Shiva that guides me.  And if I happen to blow anyone’s mind on the way, well then, mazel tov!

So you see, my magnificent learners and badass comrades, I am not trying to be the Big Fish who used to be the Small Fish.  I am not even trying to become famous by jumping the ponds.  According to David Lynch’s book on Transcendental Meditation — I’m just tryin’ to do me some fishin’:

“Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below.  If you can expand the container you’re fishing in — your consciousness — you can catch bigger fish.”

Now, THAT — is some “advanced” shit right there!

Ghost Fucking

Your film library shelf has a dusty picture of her—the one that slipped her thin arm down your trachea, formed a fist inside and sucker-punched your heart.  It took you nearly a year to remember the original beat, your heart still wincing at the sound of her name.  The couch on which I’ve stretched out my dark thighs reeks of her:  the original Slav whom I am meant to reincarnate tonight.  I stare at the beautiful face with a dimple on her left cheek—the face you’ve planned to find in your firstborn’s crib.  That face you must imagine in order to cum all over my breasts tonight.

You’re getting me a drink in the kitchen:

“So, just hot water then?” you sound condescending.  You always sound condescending.  You probably whine to your shrink about continuously falling for the exotic, foreign girls; about your wishing to procreate with your own kind.  But white women don’t fuck like we do—the brown, foreign girls.  They don’t do the dirty work, on their hands and knees, like our immigrant mothers:  they don’t lick your taint; they don’t nibble away at your nipples or lap-up your Catholic shame.  They don’t make you shriek, “What the fuck are you doing?” while you stare in awe at the action between your legs.

I drop my register a couple of notches, where my native tongue usually dwells:  “Come here,” I purr on the couch.  I am just playing my part here.

We begin a film that I’ve attempted to watch many times before, on other white men’s couches; because they can’t get off without a lesson or two on their culture.  So, they make me mixed CD’s; and they over-annunciate when I ask them to repeat a cliché.  They dust off their father’s copies of Citizen Kane and The Godfather (Part I and II—never III):

“Hwhat?!  You’ve never seen this?”  No, I haven’t.  They didn’t have TV’s where I come from:  Bosnia or the Ukraine.  Or Ellis Island.  It’s all the same to you.

I put my feet under your thighs, then on top of them.  Someone is already overacting on the screen, in black-and-white.  I scoot down like a bitch in heat.  I caress your thinning hair and exhausted eyelids.  There, there, my little boy.  It’ll all be alright, in the end.  Your lips, dry and large, start looking for your mama’s breasts; and in the act, they forget the condescending grin.  And for that second:  I can see you—you on the first day of your lungs inhaling; you, before a lover stuffed her holes with your organs; because it was much easier than working on her own shit.  That you makes my ovaries flip like a Romanian gymnast.

So, I rip my face through the air, toward yours, even though I know you’re already gone, thousands of sexual ticks overcrowding you self-awareness.  Your mouth tastes like Jack.  And pot.  A sad twofer prone to be found in an American lover.  I reach down to confirm the case of a Whiskey Dick:  Bingo.  I try not to lose my hard-on to pathos but I know if you do get some wind tonight, you’ll have to turn off the lights and close your eyes.

Which you do.

“You like that?” you ask, quoting your favorite porn, in the dark, with nothing but the must-see American classic illuminating your skin to that color of translucent white.  I’m getting fucked by a ghost here.  “Hmmm?  You like that?  Tell me what you like!” you repeat.  It’s your couch—it’s your game.

I do have a choice though:  to pull you out of me, fix my skirt—and leftovers of my dignity—and walk out of this typical tale of pathetic Hollywood sex; then, cry inside my car, then call up a girlfriend to dis your name.  Or I can lie.

“Oh yes.  Just like that.  Right there.”  I lie.  A terrible actor in another warzone of an unworthy love story.